nolead ends An indigenous Australian singer-songwriter blind from birth, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu has become an unlikely breakout star across the world since releasing this hour-long debut album at home and in Europe. He's duetted with Sting on French TV, opened by personal request for Elton John at the Sydney Opera House, and seen the album go double platinum and win several awards in Australia. Rightly so: Singing primarily in regional dialects of Australia's Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve, Yunupingu's voice is transfixing and somehow universal. He uses his left hand to play a guitar strung for a right-handed player, taking the familiar low-key DNA of folk music into unexplored places. Often embellished with nothing more than double bass and vocal harmonies, Yunupingu reveals a serene, soulful resonance.
- Doug Wallen
nolead begins Robyn
nolead ends nolead begins Body Talk Pt. 1
nolead ends nolead begins (Konichiwa/Cherrytree/
nolead ends The problem with Swedish-born Robyn's 2005 emancipation plea wasn't that it was overrated by hipsters for its underdog story ('90s one-hit wonder gets kicked around at a major label, goes it alone, and reveals unsuspected talent). It's that our homegrown stars had too much overblown personality for a quirky-haired studio robot to compete. Now that our biggest pop star is Lady Gaga, whose entire premise is trying to convince us she's a robot, Robyn's due for a public reprogramming. For one thing, she knows she's a robot. The blissfully overprocessed "Fembot" could be Fergie in 2030, rapping about "initiating slut mode" before an unexpectedly gorgeous refrain. With scarcer competition than five years ago, her smartest (and best) song is also one of the best singles of the year. Why Body Talk Pt. 1 triumphs as an album (well, mini-album; parts 2 and 3 are expected before year's end) is that most of the other songs are just about as good. With its rote backbeat, the early-Madonna-evoking greatness of first single "Dancing on My Own" might not sink in at first, but the addictive "whoa-oa" hook changes that fast. The nagging synths underscoring "Cry When You Get Older" keep the melody from oversweetening.
Body Talk's ultracheap production surprisingly helps a sonic consistency lacking on most try-anything pop albums, even on the reggae song "Dancehall Queen," a Diplo collaboration that pays winningly silly tribute to Robyn's prefab precursors, Ace of Base. After a near-perfect first five tracks, she falters a little on the droning Röyksopp duet "None of Dem," but survives a cheesy ballad with strings and a Swedish-language torch-song closer. But she was thoughtful enough to open with "Don't F-ing Tell Me What to Do," so I won't. A fembot who runs this thing like a dance-hall queen who can handle dancing on her own but insists that you hang with her anyway - that's personality in 2010, never mind 2030.
- Dan Weiss
nolead begins Susan Cowsill
nolead ends nolead begins Lighthouse
nolead ends nolead begins (Threadbare ***)
nolead ends "From Katrina to Super Bowl Champs, this is our story," Susan Cowsill writes in the liner notes of her second solo album. If the name sounds familiar, yes, the New Orleans-based singer and songwriter was a member of the '60s family group the Cowsills. You won't find their kind of effervescent pop here; instead, Cowsill, in the manner of her work with the Americana supergroup the Continental Drifters, delivers something deeper and richer.
Lighthouse's elegant folk-rock, at times augmented by violin and cello, is suffused with loss and dislocation. Besides great material loss, the temporarily displaced Cowsill also lost one of her brothers, Barry, in the 2005 hurricane. (In tribute, she covers his "River of Love" with vocals by three other siblings.) But this story's arc has a cumulative power, and it ends on a note of hope with "Crescent City Sneaux." As Cowsill references both the city's storied musical tradition and its new football champions ("Oh when dem Saints come marchin' in / They'll all be singin' / Who Dat, Who Dat say they gonna beat them Saints"), the joy and optimism are as palpable as they are hard-earned.
- Nick Cristiano
nolead begins The Gaslight Anthem
nolead ends nolead begins American Slang
nolead ends nolead begins (Side One Dummy ****)
nolead ends Springsteen went racing in the street. Paul Westerberg was no one's son. Brian Fallon, the lead singer of New Brunswick's Gaslight Anthem, sings of working for time, tattooed knuckles, and watching a band called the Jackknifes play in a basement. And he does it with such fierce conviction that it's easy to forget the bar-punk band's obvious reference points and contemporaries: Bruce and the Replacements, of course, but also Social Distortion, Against Me!, and the Hold Steady. With the Gaslight Anthem's electrifying third album, however, the comparisons feel more like classic-rock homage - Thin Lizzy on "Diamond Church Street Choir," the Clash on "Queen of Lower Chelsea" - and the record's 10 songs play as pieces of the same lost dream, one big on raspy choruses, guiding guitars, and working-class shore life. "We were strangers many hours / And I missed you for so long," Fallon reveals in the slow-burning closer, "We Did It When We Were Young," before finding some closure: "But I am older now." This is your summer soundtrack.
- Michael Pollock
nolead ends You could say Hank III is really getting the hang of this honky-tonk thing. Although it may seem odd to use the word maturing for someone who still likes to strike a rebel pose and who also performs punk/metal as Assjack, as a country artist he is doing well by the family tradition. As with his physical features, his style is closer to that of his gaunt, nasal-voiced grandfather, Hank Williams Sr., than his burly, country-rocker daddy, Hank Jr.
The punk side of Hank III surfaces on the profane "Tore Up and Loud." The rocker is the album's weakest track and points up that Hank III is much more credible - and appealing - when he drops the self-conscious attitude. The bluegrass-flavored "Lookin' for a Mountain" has just as much energy as "Tore Up . . .", as Hank III expresses longing for a home. He also delivers several striking down-and-outers, from the booze-fueled self-pity of "Gettin' Drunk and Fallin' Down" and "Drinkin' Ain't Hard to Do," to "Gone But Not Forgotten" and the junkie's lament "#5." In that same vein, "Lost in Oklahoma" is another one that reveals an artist who has found his voice.
- Nick Cristiano
nolead begins Jim Lauderdale
nolead ends nolead begins Patchwork River
nolead ends nolead begins (Thirty Tigers ***)
nolead ends If Jim Lauderdale were embraced by the public as much as he is by some of the top names in country and pop, he'd be a superstar. The Americana ace has written hits for George Strait and the Dixie Chicks, among others, while his rich North Carolina drawl has provided soulful harmonies for stars including Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, and Willie Nelson.
On his own, the exceedingly prolific Lauderdale has built an impressive body of work while mining various stylistic veins. The plugged-in Patchwork River follows last year's bluegrass outing, Could We Get Any Closer?, and is another collaboration with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter - they also teamed on 2004's Headed for the Hills. The results are typical Lauderdale: literate but earthy, and steering clear of cliches. The music incorporates country, swamp, rock, and folk. We'll just call it honky-tonk soul.
(Blue Note ***1/2)
nolead ends Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes are two of the top jazz pianists of their fortysomething generation. Their marriage in 2007 and their joint piano concerts led inevitably to this CD. The surprising thing is that the two pianists have quite different musical personalities, and their duet suggests yet a third.
Charlap comes from musical theater and Tin Pan Alley, and his jazz is remarkably personal and romantic and focused on standards. Rosnes, an early export from the vibrant Vancouver, British Columbia, jazz scene, tends to the boppish side of things.
Their collaboration on Lyle Mays' "Chorinho" is exceedingly fresh and dreamy and sets a tone for this amazing session. Throughout, they cover well-known standards along with serious jazz tunes - Gerry Mulligan's "Little Glory" is a pretty one - and a lone original, Rosnes' "The Saros Cycle," which is oddly classical.
Jobim's "Double Rainbow" is freakin' gorgeous by any measure. So is Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now," which finds new drama at its deliberate pace.
There really isn't much of a downside - except that they didn't let more people in on the fun. Maybe that comes next.
- Karl Stark
nolead begins Frank Butrey
nolead ends nolead begins Malicious Delicious
nolead ends nolead begins (Lust for Toys Records ***)
nolead ends Guitarist Frank Butrey isn't afraid to get percussive. The Philly-area-based leader, who has collaborated with bassist Warren Oree and the Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble, touches on many styles on his new CD, ranging from gorgeous to in-your-face loud.
"This End Up" gets surprisingly rockish and distorted for a jazz set. "Dimitri, Birks and Dewey" sports a slight Spanish tinge, while the title track makes for a wonderful driving blues.
Butrey taps such sidemen as drummer Tony "Stickman" Wyatt and bassist Clifton Kellem, while the guests include Oree, bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard, and soprano saxophonist Umar Raheem.
Mostly, there is a pleasant sense of unpredictability. "Dodges, Denials and Delays" is angular and aggressive, while the Butrey solo piece, "Niece and Nephews," shows a softer side.
(Sony Classical, two discs, ***1/2)
nolead ends Jessye Norman's first new recording more than a decade has her further afield from opera than she's ever been - in a near-simultaneous release with Renée Fleming's rock album Dark Hope. Recorded live in Berlin, Norman is accompanied by a big band in a selections ranging from Duke Ellington to Francis Poulenc. At 64, her voice is firmer and healthier than in her 2008 comeback recital at Carnegie Hall. In contrast to Fleming's complete vocal transformation and homogeneous rock style on Dark Hope, Norman tries out numerous non-operatic vocal styles from gospel to French cabaret in a selection of music that pays tribute to the great African American song stylists of the past.
She sounds liberated, unbuttoned, and like she's having the time of her life. However, those of us who love the plush Norman voice have a significant adjustment to make. The old velvet seems to be there anytime she wants it, but that's not what she wishes to use these days. Even when singing the "Habanera" from Carmen, Norman isn't particularly wedded to the original vocal lines. But she's a gracious improviser, and about 75 percent of the two-disc set is convincing on its own terms. Elsewhere, self-consciousness sets in, as in her Mabel Mercer-ish version of Poulenc's "Les Chemins de L'Amour." Too bad there's no DVD component, since Norman seems to employ more showmanship than ever. But is this what her core public wants?
- David Patrick Stearns
nolead begins Thomas Larcher
Böse Zellen for piano and orchestra, Still for viola and chamber orchestra, and Madhares (String Quartet No. 3)
nolead ends nolead begins Till Fellner, piano; Kim Kashkashian, viola; Munich Chamber Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies conducting, and Quatour Diotima
nolead ends nolead begins (ECM ***1/2)
nolead ends This disc signifies the emergence of an imposing, important new compositional personality - 46-year-old, Vienna-based Thomas Larcher. Initially, he pursued a career as a concert pianist, but he is now focusing on composing in a manner that's definitely in step with the European modernists but has a distinctively dense, busy richness that promises great things to come. Actually, great things are here already - which is apparent from these fully realized performances with this dream lineup of soloists and ensembles.
On an analytic level, the music can be bewilderingly illogical; the album notes even go so far as to call it stream of consciousness. But what draws you back to it again and again is the almost spatial juxtaposition of precisely molded, attention-commanding sounds that create alternately stormy and meditative collages you simply want to live in. Periodically, Larcher focuses on a single note and seems to probe it to death. Is this the ultimate minimalism?